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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Flipside Of My Favorite - September 20, 2015

“They were silent...for on their way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

Just dwell on that sentence for a second. “They were silent...for on their way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

There's a lot going on in this seemingly innocuous sentence about people doing nothing. It even sits right in the middle of our passage from Mark today, easily overpowered by the events on either side of it. On one side, Jesus makes the second of three predictions of his betrayal, death and resurrection … and like before, the disciples don't understand.

And then on the other side of this picture of the disciples frozen in silence is the well known and tender image of Jesus lifting up the gift of our children when he brings a child among them …

I have to tell you a little aside story here …pastors' text study at Eden … Natalie running through the church... squealing with delight … “And Jesus placed a little child among them.”  If that story doesn't illustrate that God is still active in this world and teaching us through Jesus, I don't know what does.

So Jesus places a child among the disciples... the tenderness he displays spills over into the rather ambitious words of his teaching to the disciples … and now to us. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That's a tall order for a world caught up in power struggles and hierarchies, competitions and strategies.

So it's in between these two powerful events we find this single sentence about the disciples' silence. But there's quite a bit going on this in sentence.

First of all is the noteworthy silence in itself. Silence plays a big role in Mark. By my count Jesus has done or revealed something life-changing and then told people to be quiet about who he was and what he'd done eight times already. But his urging for silence usually only inspires more talk about him. Bible scholars calls this the Messianic Secret.

Today, Jesus talks openly about who he is … the Son of Man, the long awaited Messiah, God come down to live among us, teach us, die for us and rise again  … for us, and all the disciples can do is  freeze up in silence… they have stopped proclaiming the Good News that is absolutely changing their lives and their experiences of God in radical ways.

Second, this sentence tells us where this silence is taking place … “they were silent, for on the WAY they had argued with each other.” They were on the Way. The Greek word for “way” is the same as the word for “road.” Some early followers of Jesus referred to their faith journey as “the Way,” especially in times of persecution … times when saying you were a Jesus follower could get you killed. It was a coded way of communicating to others who you were and finding out if they too were a follower without revealing too much at first.

“So … you on the Way?” Another follower would know how to translate the question …. “Are you a follower? Are you my brother or sister in Christ?” This was one way the first hearers of this Gospel would have communicated. The Gospel writer's word choices are no accident.

So here already … in this little sentence that sits in the deep valley between a Passion prediction and a little child among us with a call to be servant to all … here we are and we have a picture of the disciples being the only people who actually do keep the Messianic Secret. They keep the Good News all to themselves while they are literally on “the Way.”

But wait! There's more. And it involves the translation again ….

It has to do with the argument on the Way … not only what the disciples are arguing about, but how they are arguing. The Greek word that we have translated as “greatest” should actually be translated as “greater.” And that brings a different nuance to this sentence …. “they had argued with one another who was greater” is different. It implies they were comparing themselves to each other.

We big-brained creatures are naturally wired to do this, I'm pretty sure. This ability to discern and choose helps us be a rather hearty species … we choose fire over sleeping in dampness; we choose blueberries and raspberries over poison berries; we choose public education over illiterate masses; we choose smoke-free public spaces over exposure to known carcinogens. In many ways this ability to compare and choose favorites is a way in which we are gifted, it's a strength of our species. But as a wise person once told me, flip over any gift or strength and there you will find an area of real challenge or a blind spot.

This can be one of those areas for us, as the disciples are so honestly showing us in their silence on the Way. We start using it to compare people and wherever you decide someone is greater, you are also deciding who is lesser.

We see it in our reading from James too. Perhaps is was discrimination in worship or neglecting care of the poor that prompted this letter. We cannot know for sure. Whatever it was, it led to some hard words that very plainly name sinful behavior that can come of comparing people and assigning worth or status. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” (3:14-16)

For the disciples in our gospel reading, maybe comparing themselves to see who was greater was what they did in order to distract themselves from the fact that they did not understand Jesus as he continued to teach them along the Way. If I were one of them, I'm not sure I would understand or even want to understand how this preaching and healing and teaching ministry also included Jesus being betrayed by humans and then killed. And as for that “rise again” thing … what they heck was that all about? It must have sounded so strange to them.

Maybe if they hadn't been afraid to ask, they would have eventually come to understand that the unfolding prediction of Jesus' Passion and death was God's will – that what the Messiah was sent to do included healing people, filling bellies, opening the scriptures, pointing a finger at the power hungry and those who had turned their back on the essence of God's law. It was that, and it was much, much more. It was also the final remedy needed for a chronically broken world and the power of evil over our eternal lives. It is the bigger picture of what it means that the “Kingdom of God has come near!”

Since they didn't understand and they were too afraid to ask questions while they were on the Way, perhaps they defaulted to talking about what they could do. How could they stop this all from happening? But remember from last week, they are following Jesus and his face is set like flint toward Jerusalem. It was pretty clear they weren’t going to stop what appeared to be coming once they got there. That could have easily led  to a discussion of who was greater. After all, if Jesus was going to march to his death in Jerusalem, they needed to start thinking about who would lead them in continuing the ministry. Seems logical. But, also like last week, they continued to set “their minds not on divine things, but human things.”

So Jesus brought their attention back to the divine. “What were you arguing about on the Way?” he asks as he prepares again to show them how utterly counter cultural the new order is in the Kingdom of God. He brings a child among them. First century children were certainly loved, but they held no status in that world. And so he brings this powerless and most vulnerable one among them to punctuate his teaching … “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  All means all. It's how the disciples then and us disciples today are called to life on the Way. We, in Jesus, are asked to welcome all, no matter the perceived status or value assigned in this world.

I like this vulnerable portrait of the original disciples. It reminds us that God knows our limits, God knows where we are likely to fall down in our discipleship. But even in our most broken moments when we're frozen in silence and fear, God comes to us in the teaching of Jesus and urges us to continue on the Way.

And while we're on the Way Jesus continues to pull us back from human things to divine things … to the the Kingdom of God, where all our comparisons – who is the greater in this pew or this town; who is greater in this sport or this class; who is greater in terms of political sway or righteousness or wealth or power – all of that is leveled out in the kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, the table and font are open to all of us without distinction. God looks with favor and love on each and every one of us without comparison. And God serves each of us equally in coming among us as Jesus to teach us, to die for us and ultimately to rise again and leave a open tomb, seemingly frozen in silence, but actually loudly and eternally proclaiming the victory over death Jesus has won for all of creation.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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